Write a Great College Essay! Tips from an Admissions Counselor

Author: Emily LaPlaca


As a high school senior working on your college application, you may be wondering what you can do to set yourself apart from other applicants and how to best represent your experiences, values, and abilities in your application.

One of the best opportunities that you have to introduce yourself to admissions counselors is through your college essays. For universities like Notre Dame, which do not conduct interviews as a part of the admissions process, you can treat your application essays as a written interview of sorts—a way to add your own voice and personal touch to your application.

Here are a few pieces of advice to consider as you write, revise, and submit your college essays.

Be unique.

Keep in mind that the admissions counselors at each of the colleges to which you apply will read hundreds of applications each week. Because of this, choosing topics for your essay based on what you think we want to hear is not the best use of this opportunity—if you think we want to hear a certain topic, it is probably a very common topic that we've already read over and over and will not stand out.

This does not mean that you can only write an interesting essay if you have had an experience that no one else has ever had. Even if you choose to write about an experience, activity, or topic that many other students may have experienced, we encourage you to write about it from your own unique perspective and with your own authentic voice.

Have others read over your essays.

Your essays must be well-written, and it is always good to have someone that you trust proofread them (carelessness is easily preventable!). If you procrastinate on writing your essays and wait until the last minute, you may miss out on a valuable opportunity to have them read by a fresh pair of eyes. It is also abundantly clear when you have rushed through your essays just to check a box.

Another added value of having someone read over your essays is making sure that you have brought your voice to your writing. When getting started, sit down with a pen and paper and jot down things that are important to you, whether it's your values, the experiences that have shaped you, your passions, or things that you've been involved with that have made an impact on others. This is just a small sampling of the many topics that can prompt an essay. Make it personal! Have fun with it! If you are funny, don't be afraid to use humor in your essays. If you are not blessed with a sense of humor, it is probably not a great time to try out new jokes...

The most important thing is to have someone who knows you well read over your essays and give you feedback. If your close friend, mentor, or family member reads your essay, ask them if the writing sounds like your unique voice. If it does, then there is a good chance that we will agree and will learn more about you as a result!

Make the most of the short essay questions.

Each year, our admissions staff puts a great deal of thought and effort into determining which questions to include in our writing supplement. This year’s prompts include a variety of questions that allow you to tell us more about the impact you have made on a community of which you are a part, a meaningful place or feature of your hometown, your values, your opinions, your experiences, and more.

The one thing that does not change from year to year is that we always ask you why it is that you are submitting an application to Notre Dame. While the wording may change how we ask this question, the core of the question is this—you are taking the time and energy to submit an application to the University of Notre Dame; why?

While it may be tempting to copy and paste an answer from another university’s writing supplement and change a few things here and there, I would encourage you to use this question to really examine why you are applying to Notre Dame in the first place. This can be a helpful exercise, allowing you to reflect on your goals and hopes for your college education, and it can also convey to our admissions staff why you believe Notre Dame is a good fit for your time in college and beyond.

The three supplemental essays that you submit for your application may be short, but they are in no way less important as a result of their brevity. We learn a great deal about you from each essay you write, and we hope that you enjoy this unique opportunity to reflect and introduce yourself in your application.

Make sure to use the short essay questions to talk about things we do not yet know about you. Writing about the same or a similar topic in one of your supplemental essays as your longer personal statement is a missed opportunity to tell us something new about you. The supplement is a short response but can still give us valuable insights into who you are, what you care about, and what you strive to be.

Best of luck, and Go Irish!

Emily Laplaca

Emily LaPlaca is an assistant director in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and the admissions counselor for: the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia (Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax County), and international areas in Nanjing; Hubei, Chongqing, Shaanxi, and Sichuan provinces; and Mongolia. Learn more.